Who am I?

I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Paul Tevis

Entries in reader request (22)

Monday
May092011

Strongly Schematic

Will Hindmarch asks:

Whatever you’re doing, you seem to be able to relate it to something else you’ve done or read about, quickly and with confidence, and use that like a stepping stone to get on top of new experiences. How do you do that? How did you learn to draw connections between things as you do? Does it come naturally or did you train for it?

The answer is simple and unsatisfying. How do I do that? I have no idea. Will is onto something here; I think the way I incorporate new phenomena into my existing constellation of experiences is one of the things that makes me me. I am absolutely a synthetic thinker. I’m made aware of this almost every day because I work in a profession dominated by analytic thinkers. Breaking things into their component parts comes very naturally to many of my co-workers. I’m much better at putting pieces together into new wholes. Why? I don’t really know.

I think I just operate on this wavelength by default. I can’t point to anything in particular that has helped me train this skill. And I have come to realize that it comes a lot more easily to me than it does to others. Still, we all do this to some extent or another. The relevant psychological term is schema. Ideas are always easier to learn when we can relate them to something we already know. That’s the point of using analogies and metaphors in explanations. “High concept” pitches illustrate the point: “Speed is Die Hard on a bus.”

For me, of course, it’s hard to see how we could learn anything without connecting it to an idea we already have. I suppose, then, that what I’m particularly good at is finding those connections when they aren’t obvious. And if I knew why, I’d understand myself a lot better.




Update

Fitness: 30 minute workout
Writing: 404 words, 272 average
Sunday
May082011

Beyond the Horizon

Christina asks:

You’ve written a fair amount about short- to medium-term goals, but I’m curious about things that are more than a year or two away. Do you have any long-term goals or dreams?

Oddly enough, I don’t really. I occasionally have ideas of things that would be cool if they happened, but those aren’t goals. I’m not actively doing anything towards a specific aim that’s more than a year or two away.

Now that’s not to say that I don’t think beyond a few months away. I’ve written before about my fear of cutting off possibilities. I try to do things that keep long-term options open. I’ve been saving for retirement since I got my first paycheck, even though I have no specific plans about exactly how or when. I keep abreast of the current job market and update my resume regularly, because I never know when I might need to look for something. I file a lot things away for future use, even if they’re not part of some plan I’m working on. I have strategies for the long run, rather than goals or plans.

What’s at the core of this is that my long-term goal is the same as my short term one: To live a fulfilling life. I’ve tried to do the long-term planning thing before, and it’s never worked out for me. My realistic planning horizon is just too short. I can’t say what fulfillment is going to look like a year or more from now, in part because of the uncertainty of things, in part because I don’t know who I will be then.




Update

Fitness: Biked 18 miles
Writing: 250 words, 269 average
Friday
May062011

Two Years On

Wes Otis asks:

If you could go back, is there anything you would do different with A Penny For My Thoughts?

The short answer is “not really.” The long answer is in something I wrote recently for the Afterword of the Italian edition of Penny, which I just realized hasn’t been posted anywhere in English. So here it is:

It’s been almost two years since I finished writing the original edition of A Penny For My Thoughts. The publication of the Italian edition gives me the opportunity to look back at the book and the game with the additional perspective the passage of time affords me.

I think the book does what I want it to. There are few things I would change if I had to do it over — some of the steps in chapter two are too long and should have been broken down further — but enough people have been able to play the game without having me at the table that I’m happy with it. The comments I’ve read about how easy the game is to pick up and about how other games should aspire to the same clarity reassure me that I reached my goals as a writer.

I have been surprised by how many people have played the game and enjoyed it. Each story I have heard has reminded me why I wanted to publish it, rather than simply setting the design aside after Game Chef. I admit that I haven’t been able to support the game as well as I would like, particularly on places like RPGGeek.com. I’m grateful to a small group of dedicated fans has that stepped up to promote and support it. They’ve taken what I designed and made it their own. Every mention of Penny on a forum, on Twitter, or on Facebook makes me smile.

And now a story: A few months after Penny was published, my sister got married. While I was at my parents’ house for the wedding, my mother asked if we could try it out. So my mother, my father, my mother’s two sisters, and I played A Penny For My Thoughts around the kitchen table. Now, my family is about as far from being a group of gamers as you can get. But at the point where, at the beginning of the “pleasant” memory, my aunt Lynne asked her sister Hilve, “Was that just before you walked out into the street, were hit by a car, and lost your arm?” I knew the game worked. (She asked immediately afterward, “Are we supposed to make it hard for them?”)

That reinforced in my mind one of the underlying ideas in Penny, one that I didn’t see as clearly when I originally wrote it. We are instinctive story-builders. The natural pattern-matching process of our brains can’t help but assemble narratives out of events it encounters. It’s not just gamers that do this. That’s why Penny works when my parents play it with their friends. Non-gamers sometimes have an easier time playing Penny than gamers do, because they listen to this instinct with letting letting ideas like character ownership or “winning” get in their way. Penny works best when you trust these instincts.

Penny has exceeded every expectation I had for it. I never imagined winning the Indie RPG Award for Most Innovative Game. I couldn’t possible have believed a game I wrote would be translated into another language. It’s been a tremendously cool experience. Thank you for being a part of it.

On the subject of thanks, there are few I want to give. Thank you to Renato Ramonda for being one of the early supporters and playtesters of Penny. Thank you as well to Guilia Barbano, Flavio Mortarino, and the rest of the Janus Design crew for your interest and promotion of the game. Sorry I wasn’t able to make it to Milan last summer. We’ll have to try again. Thank you to Fred Hicks for continuing to handle the business side of keeping Penny in print. Deciding to work with you on this was one of the best publishing decisions I could have made, and I’m happy to continue to ride Evil Hat’s coattails. Finally, thank you to Ryan Macklin, my occasional partner in crime. This wouldn’t have happened without you. We should commit more crimes together.

Enough of my blathering. Go play!




Update

Fitness: Rest day
Writing: 427 words, 277 average
Thursday
May052011

Lost in Translations

Valerie asks:

How about a piece on bombing — on stage, at a party, as a presenter, whatever. Clever fellow that you are, your jokes are mostly met with appreciation, but we’ve all been there.

I struggled to come up with something for this. I don’t know if improv taught me this, or my natural comfort being the center of attention has something to do with it, but by and large it doesn’t distress me overly much when things don’t go right in performance or a social function. I’ve certainly been in my share of improv scenes that have gone off the rails, and I mostly don’t remember them. One of the beautiful things about improv is neither your triumphs nor your failures last long. It’s ephemeral, which is one of the things that makes it magical. Sic transit gloria mundi, for tomorrow we die.

But there is one particular event that does jump out at me, where I would say that I bombed. In fact, it was a series of repeated events, which made it even worse.

My sophomore year I was in a production of Brian Friel’s Translations, a wonderful play set during the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. It’s about language and culture and identity, and I loved the script. I wasn’t actually supposed to be in it, but one of the actors originally cast had to back out just after auditions, and I was the director’s choice to replace him. It was my first real dramatic role, having played a stock villain and a Shakespearean rogue in my first two college shows. And I struggled with it. We had a crazy short rehearsal schedule, and while I never had difficulty learning my lines — including the correct pronunciation of several dozen Gaelic place-names — I had trouble making parts of it real.

In middle of Act II, there is a pivotal moment. I mean that quite literally: the whole momentum of the show shifts and the trajectory of the character I played changes over the course of about two minutes. There’s a point where he hits bottom and finally lets loose with all of the anger and frustration that’s been building up. And then, because of the relationship he has with the poor fellow he unloads on, — and because they’ve both been drinking Irish moonshine for the whole scene — they both collapse into laughter, come to an understanding, and patch things up. Which, of course, sets up the tragedy that occurs in Act III.

I could not get that explosive transition from resentment to camaraderie right. It haunted me every night in rehearsal, and it never rang true. There was always something inauthentic about the way that I played it that I couldn’t shake. Come opening night it was still there. Closing night, eight performances later, same thing. Every night I would into that scene, hoping that I find the key to unlock it, to make it work. And every night I would come off stage after that scene practically in tears, angry with myself for not being able to get it right. One night I nearly smashed up a bit of furniture off-stage I was so upset. Of course, I would channel that into my appearance in the final scene of the show, when I presided over the unfolding disaster that we had inadvertently set in motion, so at least I had a use for those feelings of inadequacy.

The kicker, of course, is that I was my own worst critic. Sure, the scene wasn’t a tour de force of thespian-ism, but I didn’t exactly ruin the show either. No one gave me notes about. No one said, “That was great, except that guy who played Owen.” Audience members told me after the show that they loved my performance. There’s nothing quite like having a group of Irish nuns tell you that you’re good lad and that they enjoyed the show. The only place I really bombed was in my own head. Which, I’ve come to realize, is the only place it can hurt you.

It was only years later that I realized we should have rehearsed the scene drunk.




Update

Fitness: Ran 2.25 miles + 30 minute workout
Writing: 300 words, 273 average
Wednesday
May042011

Quick, Often, and Clean

Karl M asks:

More refactoring please! What techniques do you find yourself using? What do you love about it? Aesthetics? Patterns? ‘Craftsmanship’?

The phrase that’s stuck with me over the years is “ratcheting in the gains.” I first encountered it in a programming context sometime around 2002. I don’t remember where anymore, but it was probably in one of the XP books. I’ve carried that idea with me and used it as an ideal for years.

You see, the biggest problem I’ve seen on software projects I’ve worked on is moving in the wrong direction. When schedules slip, it’s not because we haven’t been moving forward fast enough, it’s because we’ve actually been moving backward. Developers break existing code without realizing it all the time. Unless, of course, they have a ratchet.

In the physical world, a ratchet is “a mechanical device that allows movement in only one direction.” In software, it’s something that makes sure that your changes are not breaking existing functionality. Having a comprehensive regression testing suite is the answer most developers have to this problem. That is necessary but not sufficient.

Refactoring and other agile software techniques recognize that in order to act as a ratchet, regression testing has to happen at the same frequency as coding. The cycle time of your test feedback needs to be roughly equal to — if not less than — the amount of time it take to make a code change. Running the tests, seeing them clean, and committing the code to version code is what setting a ratchet point is in software. Until you’ve done all three, you can still move backwards.1 After that, you’ve always got a known good point.

Another critical piece in ratcheting in the gains is setting those ratchet points as often as possible. I’ve seen material that indicates Agile developers commit code to version control ten times more often than non-Agile developers, not because they work ten times as fast, but because they see how to split the work into slices ten times as thin. I’ve seen my coding undergo exactly this transformation over the last year as I’ve started to use refactoring and TDD more effectively. Last week I did in six steps what I used to do in a single shot, because I’ve seen the value of being able to revert at any point. It’s like setting chocks while climbing: The closer together you set them, the less far you can fall.

The third critical ingredient that turns a regression test suite into a ratchet is the attitude that the tests always have to run clean. There’s no such thing as a “known failure.” If a test fails, you stop the line and fix it. If your tests are comprehensive, fast, and run often but you let them fail, you’re letting yourself move backwards.

Having that ratchet, climbing with those anchor points, is probably the thing I love most about refactoring. I can make changes to code much more quickly than I could before. Some people think that it’s odd that one of the XP values is courage, but my experiences over the last year have shown me why. In order to respond to changes — to truly be Agile — we have to have the courage to make quick changes to our code. It’s not foolish bravery, because we’ve taken the right precautions. We’ve made sure that we can’t go backwards, only forwards.




Update

Fitness:
Writing:





fn1. There really is a fourth step, which is seeing everything run clean in the production environment. Getting these three in place is still quite an accomplishment for a lot of teams and developers.